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Saturday November 1st 2014

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Florida’s Last Stand? Or, Drilling Holes in the Sunshine


By Jeremy Morrison

It’s been a busy year, so far. Tough to keep up with, even. It makes Julie Wraithmell dizzy.

“I’m at a point in our legislative session where my adrenal gland has about run out of juice,” said Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation with Audubon of Florida.

Over the past couple of months the stage has been set for a major shift in Florida’s energy exploration landscape. Possibilities lurking at both the state and federal levels could create an oil and natural gas exploration bonanza both offshore and on public lands.

“It’s a tough economic climate right now and legislators are looking at any way to bring in revenue,” Wraithmell said.

Recently, a transportation bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives which would increase energy exploration across the board. Where Florida is concerned, the eastern Gulf of Mexico—currently off-limits to drilling—would be opened up through a redrawing of the central-eastern boundary and incremental lease sales.

In Tallahassee, lawmakers are looking to open up state lands to exploration. Currently, they’ve zeroed in on Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa County, but the language is loose and there could be ramifications for any state land in Florida.

“There may be some oil up there,” said state Sen. Greg Evers. “They could actually get some. Who knows?”

For energy companies it could be the dawn of a new frontier. A lot’s on the table. The Outer Continental Shelf, Alaska, California and vast swaths of the country could become fair game.

And Florida. Both inland and offshore. The industry’s been eyeing the state for years like it was the last virgin at the prom, and now it may finally be coming up for grabs.

For the energy industry, it could be shaping up to be a good year. For folks like Wraithmell it’s discouraging.

“It’s a climate where anything can go,” she said.

HUNTING BLACKWATER’S BLACK WATER

It’s difficult to discern a state line in the middle of a forest. Trees don’t observe such jurisdictional boundaries and neither do oil deposits.

Oil companies, however, must observe state lines and all the accompanying laws. Or, at least, get the laws changed.

Currently, Fairways Exploration and Production, LLC is looking for oil in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest. They seem encouraged, enough so to want to take a poke around in neighboring Blackwater River State Forest in Florida.

To that end, state Rep. Clay Ford, as well as Evers, introduced bills which seek to foster public-private partnerships in public land energy ventures.

“I’ve been told we’ve got about three million acres that are worth taking a look at,” said Ford in early February.

Initially, the bills covered all state lands, but people down south get squeamish when it comes to the Everglades. As the bills have worked their way through committee they have been whittled into Panhandle-centric pieces of legislation, meaning they pertain exclusively to Blackwater.

“The folks down there in the Everglades did not want this down there,” explained Evers. “—what the consensus was … if you will limit it to Tallahassee and back to the west that will be fine.”

The bills—H.B. 695 and S.B. 1158—encourage exploration on state lands by offering companies’ the option of exclusive deals once they strike oil. Currently, companies can explore for oil on state lands that allow for such in their contingency plans, but then they must compete with other company’s when the land becomes available.

“They would get the first right of refusal,” Evers explained.

The only state land the bills would affect is Blackwater River State Forest, as that is the only locale west of Tallahassee with a contingency plan which allows for drilling. The area is home to historical wells that some say should be revisited with modern technology.

“We’re all just speculating,” Evers said. “We don’t know, it all depends on an oil company coming in and doing the seismic exploration.”

Right now, the Panhandle legislators contend, oil companies have little incentive to explore, given that their efforts could all be for naught if another company scooped up the property.

Fairways Exploration has dispatched lobbyist Dale Patchett—a former state representative and former deputy director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection—to push the pair of bills in Tallahassee. The company’s good to go as soon as their man gets it straight on the books.

Truth is, the company is already in Blackwater.

“Fairways Exploration has already done some seismic work in Blackwater,” Evers said, explaining that the company needed to come across the state line into Blackwater—“couple of miles or something, I don’t know”—in order to get accurate seismic data in relation to neighboring Conecuh.

In mid-December, local hunters could be found sulking online on the Pensacola Fishing Forum.

“In BW where I hunt they have cleared so much land and cut down a lot of old trees to get in there and test the area,” wrote Deersniper270. “I haven’t ever seen so much orange.”

The Audubon Society is worried about more than hunting. The organization is alarmed at the possible fate of Blackwater because the forest is home to the endangered Red- cockaded Woodpecker and only recently remediated from drilling activity in the middle of last century.

“It’s arguably one of the best examples of longleaf pine in the Southeast,” Wraithmell said, wondering aloud why Floridians would want to lure oil companies into the forest to begin with. “Why should we have our thumbs on the scale in the favor of the oil company?”

Plus, she’s not convinced the drilling would be confined to Blackwater, or the Panhandle.

“Management plans can easily be changed, so that’s any state land,” she said.

The pair of Northwest Florida legislators seemed satisfied enough to be bringing the oil game back to their neck of the woods. Evers, in fact, is aiming to get the ball rolling right through his backyard—the senator owns property in Blackwater.

“Yes I do, I was born and raised on Blackwater State Forest.” Evers said. “Through the course of my life I have purchased some land on Blackwater.”

The Blackwater River State Forest has pockets of privately owned land. Evers ball-parked his property holdings, estimating that he had around four parcels ranging between 25 to 75 acres a piece.

While Fairway’s neighboring seismic exploration could certainly provide evidence to encourage private property owners to take the plunge on their own chunks of forest land, the senator contends that the company’s presence in Blackwater would not enhance his own property holdings “one iota,” pointing out that he could already lease his land to treasure hunters.

“I could already do that,” Evers said. “If an oil company called me and said, ‘Greg, I understand you’ve got 75 acres of land and we want to do seismic work on it’—I could already do that.”

Both Evers and Ford said they were opposed to drilling offshore in Florida’s state or federal waters. They’ve wrapped that opposition into their arguments favoring inland drilling.

“It’d just be a better situation,” Evers said. “If we do it on land, we don’t have to worry about our beaches.”

But it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. While Tallahassee concerns itself with state lands, legislators at the federal level seem to have more of an appetite to explore offshore.

“We’ll see. That’s a federal issue,” Evers bristled at the notion. “We don’t want the situation we had last year … well, I guess it was two years ago—time flies when you’re having fun—we don’t want that on our beaches.”

THE D.C. DILEMMA

The voice on the other end of the line was full of cautious optimism. It sounded weary from lugging around the huge asterisk it was required to install at the end of each sentence.

Dan McFaul—U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller’s chief of staff—shrouded his excitement in a whispered hush, like he was dolling out directions to a super-exclusive party where the drinks would be free, but, alas, non-alcoholic. His boss was apparently getting close to muscling the RESTORE Act a few yards up the legislative field.

Launched last fall by a group of Gulf Coast lawmakers, the RESTORE Act is an attempt to keep 80 percent of fines resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the region instead of sending the untold billions to the federal treasury. McFaul reported that the act was getting “tweaked” and attached to a transportation and energy bill in an effort to get it passed.

But there was a catch: RESTORE was getting attached to H.R. 7, which would open up previously untapped areas of the country to energy exploration. The bill is a candy-coated dream for the oil and natural gas industries.

In addition to opening up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling, as well as assuring the Keystone XL pipeline, the bill also puts the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico on the table. The bill—which passed the house the next day, with RESTORE attached—includes language that redraws the central-eastern boundary in the Gulf, effectively opening up everything west of the Military Mission Line to oil and natural gas activities; it also requires incremental leasing of 50-block tracts in the eastern gulf, as well as gives the secretaries of interior and defense the authority to prioritize energy exploration over military exercises on a case-by-case basis.

The irony of attaching RESTORE to H.R. 7 was not lost on McFaul. He said piggybacking the act onto a bill which opened Florida’s portion of the gulf—green lighting rigs as close as nine miles off of Pensacola Beach—was “not ideal.” The final bill passed, but Rep. Miller voted no, because of the eastern gulf provisions.

“I understand the bill passed the house and it’s likely symbolic,” said Wraithmell. “I’m not sure the senate will take it up, and Obama will never sign it.”

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson doesn’t expect the energy aspects of the bill to gather much support in the senate. He still considers the eastern Gulf of Mexico as untouchable.

“That provision isn’t in the senate bill and it’s not there for good reasons,” said Bryan Gulley, Nelson’s press secretary. “It’s bad for the country. It’s bad for Florida. And Bill Nelson would do whatever he could to stop it.”

SINGING IN THE RAIN

The drizzle has turned into a bona fide shower in front of the federal building on Palafox Street. Christina Ortland pops an umbrella over her two small children and their protest signs decrying the push for full-throttle energy exploration.

“It’s not about our generation,” Ortland said. “It’s about the next five generations from now.”

The mother has brought her daughters out to join in an afternoon protest outside the Pensacola offices of Sen. Marco Rubio. Large cardboard cutouts of the senator and Rep. Miller greet passerby and get progressively soggier in the rain.

Ortland is a biologist by trade. She’s still reeling over the 2010 oil spill and the fact that her kids get black, sticky goo on them when they play at the beach. Plumbing the depths offshore of Florida, or the state lands in Blackwater—“awesome,” she laughed, pumping her fist sarcastically in the air—does not strike her as a good idea.

“We can’t even eat the mullet in our generation,” Ortland said, before retreating to drier ground. “I can’t imagine three generations from now.”

At the Audubon Society, Wraithmell understands the mother’s distress.

“See how I’m frustrated?” she asked.

The following Tuesday—on Feb. 21—Evers’ bill hit the Florida Senate’s Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Though the bill was expected to pass the Republican-heavy committee, the bill was temporarily postponed.

“The governor had some problems with it so we just TP’d the bill,” Sen. Evers explained following the committee meeting. “It’s probably dead for this year.”

Evers said he didn’t know if he’d float the bill during the next legislative session. The senator also said his bill’s death would have implications for Rep. Ford’s twin bill.

“If one don’t pass the other don’t pass,” Evers said.

While the pair of state bills have apparently lost their steam for now, the broader ballgame continues offshore. The fate of the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico currently rests in the U.S. Senate.